Dear Trying to Connect,
I applaud you for being so observant with your daughter’s behavior as well as the behavior of other teens. Many times parents brush off a teen’s withdrawal as “normal teen” behavior. Most often, it is not healthy behavior.
The first order of business is to try and figure out if your daughter is depressed. I don’t know where you live but winter is a really tough time for many who live in northern dark climates. Did this behavior start recently? If not, then look at other things in her life: how is her sleep pattern? eating habits? how are her friendships and has she changed friends recently? does she want to interact with other kids? I’ve written extensively about mood disorders in kids in my 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids on my website.
If you suspect that depression is an issue, call her pediatrician and give him/her a heads’ up that you are concerned about depression. Then, the doctor can dig deeper and suggest help to her. It will work better coming from someone other than you.
If you feel that she is not depressed, then I would simply try to be around her as much as possible. Ask if she would do her homework in the kitchen because you want her company. Ask if she’ll go for a walk with you, out to dinner, to a movie. When you do get her to do things with you, don’t badger her or get preachy. Ask a question or two and then listen attentively. Teens will talk to adults that they feel really want to hear what they have to say. Teens who are struggling tell me that no one cares enough to listen. This is true. Many of us moms and others in leadership positions get so caught up in “teaching” kids something that we look right over their heads.
Once she gets comfortable being with you and believes that you are willing to listen to her, then ask questions like, “Honey- I’ve noticed that you don’t seem like yourself lately, everything OK?” Then stay quiet. If she recoils and grunts, spend more fun time with her and circle back to the question in a week or so.
The same goes for other teens you are with. You don’t have the same amount of time but in my experience, the things that make teens withdraw are the following: sadness, feeling isolated, feeling that no one cares enough to listen to them, feeling misunderstood, feeling that no one is trustworthy and will hurt them and feeling that no one likes them. When you just offer to spend time with them, the fact that they see you as interested in them lifts many of these feelings.
Many teens that you work with won’t trust anyone- usually for good reason. That means that you must be patient and more patient. Don’t press them, but invite them to be with you whenever possible. Let them know that you simply want their company and that the only agenda that you have is to be their friend (you can’t be your daughter’s friend because your relationship with her is different.)
Remember one thing- never take a teenager’s behavior personally. When you see a teen withdraw from you, recognize that inside that teen is a curled up child who is terrified of being hurt again. Your job is to teach him/her over time that you will never hurt them.Ask Dr. Meg: How Can I Connect with My Teenager